“Jolly Jim” Cardwell opened a hotel. In fact, he owned several, but this particular hotel was something of an oddity. It was perched at the top of what is now called Donner Summit. This isn’t in and of itself an oddity, as people have been building resorts in picturesque places since the Roman times. What was unusual about this hotel was its positioning. It was beside the railroad, its front door directly positioned upon the entrance between two railway snow sheds.
You see, the Sierras are treacherous in the winter. As the oft referenced story of the Donner party might suggest, the snow could get twenty feet high. Avalanches were common. Blizzards were frequent. Even though most of the Transcontinental’s movements were cut into the very mountain, there were still portions of the rails that ran around the outer edges of ridges and along the sides of mountains. Where the tracks were bared, great wooden structures were erected, manmade tunnels with very few openings. These allowed the trains to come and go without becoming stuck in the snow, and at Tunnel 6, the Summit stop, the hotel took in all the off boarding passengers.
Before the highways and interstates were put in, there was an old mining road called the Dutch Flat. This too ran within sight of the Summit Hotel, and it was from this barely carved trail amongst the trees that I had my first view of the place.
Pardon me for not discussing all the particulars of how I came to be there. Suffice it to say that I had been forced to leave. Pinkertons can be a bit testy when you’re accused of massive theft and the murder of a lawman, and sometimes even faking your own demise doesn’t work out so well. I’d spent the better part of two months gambling on my earnings, growing a small fortune through the preternatural gifts I possess. But Truckee had run dry and truthfully, had taken an extremely hostile temperament with me, and so I’d determined it was time to move on.
So I spent a day walking, moving my carcass as swiftly as I could up the Dutch Flat road. For a number of reasons, the train wasn’t truthfully an option for me, and I wasn’t at my best. Then there was the added difficulty of my nearest cousin, who appeared to be following me. I decided it was time to stop, and that the Summit Hotel was as good a place as any.
The place was like a beehive in many respects, much of it a honeycomb of wooden tunnels connecting buildings, painted a pale golden color. I entered off to one side, thinking it would lead me to the entrance. I found, however, that it lead me straight into a bear cave.
I call it that, because at the mouth of this lean-to hallway, there was a bear.
He didn’t seem particularly interested in mauling anyone. In fact there were a few people entertaining him by tossing fruit at his head, and he seemed to be chained to the spot. Creeping around behind him, I was put in mind of the old days, of the South Bank and my time in the theater district. I don’t like seeing animals chained. It irks me in a way I cannot adequately put to words, but I’m also equally out of love with large predatory animals like bears, so in this case was willing to overlook his treatment.
He was a black bear, quite common in those parts, but his fur was a soft brown, whiter at the neck than the back. He wasn’t too large—I put his weight somewhere around three hundred pounds, but that’s far superior to my bulk anyway. As I snuck around his back, he caught the feel of me, and immediately wheeled round. The tourists were treated to a full display of him on his hind legs, grunting at me in challenge.
Animals don’t speak in words, my friends. They only know feelings. Normally, I own whatever land I occupy and assert dominance, but these weren’t my territories. I wasn’t about to put out anything that made me seem a danger to him. Instead I stood very still, except for a slight bow. I kept my eyes on the ground between us as the stupid people clapped. After a time, he accepted our truce, and landed back on all fours.
I moved inside as swiftly as I was able. The proprietor was there and seemed surprised to see me. Evidently this time of year, he had few patrons coming via the muddy road from Truckee. I got a room and was given a promise of exceptional food. He didn’t know the cooking I’d left was some of the finest I’d ever had, but how could he. I went up to my room and washed up.
In the evening, a train came through. It brought a number of new guests and some people who simply wanted to pop over to the hotel for the merriment. None of them were from Truckee, so I didn’t trouble myself as I looked out the window onto the gap between the door and the snow sheds. The bear was a cause for delight and many of the patrons gave him a wide but laughing berth.
Dinner was a bit of a fancy affair. Despite the time of year and the snow still plastered to the mountain outside, there were people of all types, some of whom had brought some very fine dinner attire. I sat by myself as usual, and ate my dinner in peace, until Jolly Jim came and put a hand on the back of my chair.
“Did you like the bear?”
“Someone said he gave yo a bit of a turn when you arrived. I hope he didn’t scare you.”
Those words had mockery to them. I wiped my mouth. The three men at the table beside mine gave a chuckle at my expense.
“He’s a fine chap.”
Jolly Jim grinned ear to ear. “You’ll be happy to know I’m bringing him inside for a bit, then.”
I stared up at him. Was he daft? Putting an animal like that indoors, with all the tobacco smoke and the food smells. The poor thing would be in misery in an instant. “Are you sure that’s wise?”
“Oh, he does it all the time.” Jim dropped his voice. “I do it for the guests! They love it. Bring him right up to the bar and give him a beer glass.”
As he walked away, I took a deep breath. The poor animal was dutifully brought in a few minutes later, led by a chain around its neck. As if it expected it, the bear waited beside the bar for his beer, which the bartender gave him very gingerly. The bear stood up and stuck its nose into the glass, sucking out the beer to the amusement of all. I sat back from the spectacle, aware that my mere presence there was a danger to everyone.
I ate and I pulled myself in as much as I could, but I could tell the bear’s behavior was off. Jim had to scold it several times and eventually, it became so belligerent that a somewhat apologetic handler had to take it outside via another door.
Jim clapped his hands. “Terribly sorry ladies and gentlemen! I’m afraid our friend is a bit irascible today! It’s my fault. I promised him a good wrestle this morning and only ended up giving him a hug.”
There was laughter. Some of the women were shaking their heads in astonishment.
“I’ll wrestle with him,” said a man whose accent was German.
Jim laughed, but I could tell from his voice that he wasn’t confirmed that was a good idea. “I’m sure you would, sir! And from your brawn I’d say you could win too!”
I shook my head and finished my meal, tossing my napkin upon the table. The audacity of a man doing such a thing to a large beast purely for his own amusement was obnoxious to me. I had no desire to see any more of it, nor to bother the bear further with my proximity. I stood up and began to make my way from the room.
Jim was telling everyone a story about the time the bear nearly took off the former bartender’s arm, when the German persisted. He wanted to have a go at this bear. Jim laughed.
“He chooses his own opponents!”
I looked up through the window. The bear was trying to come back into the bar, dragging the handler behind him. As he shoved his bulk into the doorway, the space between us opened and the bear caught sight of me. He let out a long growl and would have turned Sampson against the pillars if not for Jolly Jim jumping between us.
Chuckling nervously, he turned to me and whispered that I should help him for a moment. I had no idea what he was talking about, but the bear kept tugging and aiming for me.
“Go out to the front, Mr. Graves, if you please, sir!” Jim hissed at me. All at once, understanding dawned for me and with a long-suffering sigh, I turned on my heel. Walking out the front door into the sludge and dirty snow of the courtyard, I waited. The bear ambled out behind me, very swiftly, followed by a number of Jim’s patrons.
“It seems, Mr. Graves, that my friend here has decided he’d like to wrestle you!”
The crowd got a good chuckle from this—thin, darkly clad me with my silver topped cane and my sour expression. There wasn’t a person there who could have thought me healthy enough for such a leisure activity, but the bear could see through all that. He wanted a piece of me. He wanted to finish our conversation from earlier.
The handler tangled with him as Jim approached me, and in his low whisper promised me a free night if I could be asked to let it transpire. I glared at him, and he apologized profusely, but there was nothing for it. The bear had his eye on me and he would not be dissuaded.
I took off my coat and handed it off to Jim. He wanted a spectacle. He was going to get one.
I’ve never fought any large animal before. I seldom if ever need to. Usually, I either know precisely what the animal wants and make allowances, or I convince it to leave me alone. But this was a wild thing raised by a man who liked to entertain. It didn’t know the proper etiquette. It didn’t have the proper bearing…if you’ll forgive the pun. I was going to have to hurt it, I supposed. And likely end up killing one of these fine folk to make up the difference in strength. It would have to be Jim, though that would most definitely cause me a few problems.
I rolled up my sleeves and checked my braces.
There goes another suit, I thought. This trip was proving to be very rough on my wardrobe.
The bear was freed from his chain and immediately made his display of height and strength. I kept still, my arms at my sides. When he dropped, it was into a full charge. I heard the heartbeat of every man standing about leap into full race and a woman scream. I side–stepped. The bear wheeled around, very close to, and brought up an arm.
With the force of a stamp mill, the bastard swiped downward at me, caught me in the chest, and put me on my back. As I lie there, looking up at him in astonishment, he stood atop me, pressing me to the ground. His head came very close to my face and he let out a slavering roar.
I thought for certain I was about to be eaten, which would have been appropriate, to be quite honest. I raised my hands to take hold of its jaw, but suddenly the bear was being pulled backward by Jim and a few hotel staff members, one of whom threw a rope around the bear’s neck. Suprisingly, the animal allowed it, and in a sullen series of moans, was pulled back to his usual post.
They fed him a large sack of fruit, while I, covered in mud, was bodily lifted off the sticky ground.
I have fought many men in my life. From Burgundians to Red Coats, and this was the first time I’d ever been put on my back so easily. Wincing, pieces of my skeleton barely hinged together, I stood huffing in the cold air, several other patrons patting my back. A large glass of brandy was brought to me and I drank it up. It was good brandy too—Hine, if I’m not mistaken. I slurped it down and took a second when it was offered. The crowd got their laughter and commiseration out of the way.
As they all repaired back to the warmth of the hotel, Cardwell slapped me on the back and asked if I was well.
“I’ve just been stood upon by a cinnamon bear, sir. How do you think I feel?”
He laughed. “Give your clothes to the steward. I’ll have them cleaned up. Shoes too! And have a bath too. I’m sorry about that. I don’t know why he was so belligerent. It had to be you, I’m afraid.”
I stood up. Something cracked loudly. His eyes went wide.
“I’ll take some more chops up in my room if you’ll do me the kindness.”
“Of course, Mr. Graves.” I put out a hand for my cane, which he dutifully gave me. “Sir, you’re faring remarkably well. You wrestle with a bear before?”
“No sir. And never again, I’m afraid.”
He chuckled and saw me back indoors. As promised, I was given a free stay, but as I took my leave, I felt it incumbent upon me to say a farewell to my adversary.
He was sitting just inside the entrance to the tunnel, huffing at me, but I could see that he was afraid. Poor sap. He’d done the one thing most people never survived—getting drunk and trying to win a fight with a monster. No telling, but it felt as if he truly wanted to beg pardon and fall upon my mercy. As if a night of thought had made him look on his actions a little more sensibly.
I stood opposite him for some time. Talking with animals takes time. Stillness too. It takes a kind of poise that humans seldom manage. I took a seat on the footing of the snowshed.
“You gave me quite the walloping, sir,” I said aloud, but with my whole being, I told him it was all in good fun, and that I wasn’t upset about it. There were a few half barrels of fruit and slop just out of his reach. I tossed him a soft apple. It sat beside his paw untouched.
He made a small, plaintive moan.
“Go on then. I’ll have one too.”
I bit into mine. It was rotten, but so what. You eat a ten day old drowning victim a few times and an old apple gives no pause.
He ate his in one great bite. After I’d eaten most of mine, I tossed him the core and got on my way.
And that is the story of how I had a free hotel stay at the Summit Hotel, by virtue of wrestling a bear. Though to be fair, he won.
You might be asking yourself what happened to the bear, and I do know the answer to that. Why? Because I never take defeat without knowing my enemy better for the next encounter. It’s tragic, I’m afraid, which is one reason I hesitated to tell the full story.
Jolly Jim was forced to shoot the poor dear only a year later. According to what I was told, he’d tried to eat a horse inside the stables at Truckee, where he was housed after Cardwell purchased the Kaiser House. It seems a few boys threw some stones at him to stop him, and he chased them from the property.
It’s a sorry tale, but in at least one way, I am content. The only enemy to ever fight me and win, no longer exists to do it again.
And I have learned my lesson. I will never again wrestle a bear or even joke about it. They are lethal killing machines, to be sure.